A24 delivers another piece of top notch horror with It Comes at Night.
It Comes at Night opens with a family forced to do something no family should ever have to do. It’s an emotional moment as the family’s grandfather (David Pendleton) has become sick. What he’s sick with or how exactly he became sick nobody knows, but there’s an epidemic that has rapidly spread and wiped out large portions of the population. After saying their goodbyes the grandfather is taken out into the woods where he is shot and burned. It’s the only thing that can be done in the name of survival.
The remaining family members — father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) — live in a desolate house in the middle of the woods. The family lives in isolation for protection. Their home is boarded up and when you enter you have to go through two heavily locked doors to get to the actual living area. Unfortunately, the family does less living and more surviving.
The latest film from director Trey Edward Shults is an infection movie that starts off by putting us in the middle of the infection. No time is wasted telling us how the infection began, nor does the family waste time trying to find a cure or solution. Finding a cure would be great, but honestly, the best thing anyone can do when facing a situation like this is just endure.
Paul will do whatever it takes to make sure his family survives and that means running a tight ship. No one leaves the house at night unless it’s an absolute emergency and if you do leave you don’t leave alone. When the family is in the house all doors are to remain locked under any and all circumstances. The family eats all meals together so that food is properly rationed. In this new world, you can’t afford to have a midnight snack.
One night as the family is sleeping they are awakened by a loud banging noise coming from their front room. The family rushes down, guns in hand, to greet the intruder. As they approach the bright red door that serves as their last line of defense they can see it violently shaking as something from the other side bangs against it, trying to break it down.
This is the first of many intense, heart pounding scenes. What is on the other side of that door? Is a person? Is it something else? We know so little at this point that it could be anything. It ends up being a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) and don’t worry this isn’t any sort of spoiler.
Will is caught off guard as he clearly was not expecting to find anybody in the house. Paul quickly disarms him and takes him outside and ties him to a tree to leave him over night. The next morning Paul comes out to question Will and find out why he was breaking into his house. Will explains is a story, claiming he didn’t mean any harm and was just trying to help his wife (Riley Keough) and young son (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Will’s story isn’t that different than Paul’s — he’s simply trying to look out for his family while adjusting to this new world that nobody quite understands.
After a quick discussion with Travis and Sarah, it’s decided that Paul will take Will back to get his wife and son and the three of them will move in with Paul’s family. Both families will leave together, work together and help one another survive. The more people there to protect the home, the safer it’ll be. At least that’s the theory.
It Comes at Night is an incredibly dark film. There’s a very real external threat but it’s mostly an unknown. It’s some sort of plague and once it infects you your body deteriorates at a rapid pace. And that’s a genuinely scary thing. Nobody wants their skin to be covered with boils and warts with blood randomly gushing from your mouth. As unpleasant as that sounds it’s not nearly as scary as the things humans are capable of doing.
In a post-apocalyptic world animalistic instincts take over. When people are backed into a corner and forced to fight to survive there are no limits as to what they’ll do. It Comes at Night pushes those limits further than we typically see on screen. Paul’s family is no different from Will’s family. They all just want to survive and take care of their own. And they genuinely want to help one another, but when every day is a struggle you can only trust so much.
The two families have some heartwarming moments together. There are happy times and some laughs to be shared, but there’s always some underlying tension. Is Will who he seems? What about Paul? This is all heats up until it boils over into a jaw-dropping ending that I did not expect to see.
The movie gets by in large part due to some incredible performances. Christopher Abbott, who I was previously unaware of, gives us a knockout performance as Will. His portrayal is very ambiguous. You want to like him and believe his intentions are true, but it’s never 100% clear.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. gives a breakout performance flashing star potential as Travis. As a teenager, he’s arguably undergoing the most struggles. Not only does he have to deal with this world that nobody understands with a disease spreading and killing everyone in comes in contact with, but he’s also a teenager and being a teenager isn’t easy. He’s going through all the changes teenagers go through and the film is mostly shown from his perspective. It Comes at Night isn’t only a horror film but it’s also a coming-of-age story about Travis that just happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic backdrop.
The film also has some interesting technical and style choices. In the post-screening Q&A Shults shared some of these choices with the audience and the most interesting was how they handled the nightmare/dream sequences within the film. There are a number of these within the film and they’re amongst the most powerful scenes so Shults took this opportunity to mess with the aspect ratio. The film is 2:35:1 while the nightmares are 1:85:1. A subtle difference to be sure, but a nice little touch nonetheless.
During the Q&A Shults also discussed how he wrote the film during a dark time in his life in which he was dealing with the death of his father. This explains the darkness of the film and when you know this information creates a bigger punch the gut.
Audiences are going to love It Comes at Night, provided they’re ok with things being left open to interpretation. There are a number of moments within the film where it’s not entirely clear what happened. Shults was pressed on a lot of these moments and every time made it clear that it’s for the audience to decide. Personally I think that’s for the betterment of the film and applaud him for doing so. I find films more enjoyable when you can create your own path.
Trey Edward Shults is quickly ascending the ranks of the best young directors working and this will only further cement his rising status. Few directors are able to blend honest emotion with legit scares as well as Shults does here. While we haven’t yet reached the halfpoint of the year I’m fairly confident in saying that when the year comes to a close It Comes at Night will stand tall amongst the very best of 2017.